The Reason We Feel Instant Attraction To Some People — But Not Others, According To Research

Photo: Anna Shavets | Canva
LGBTQ couple embracing

By Leigh Norén, MSc

You know that feeling that suddenly hits you.

You’re traipsing around town and notice someone who gives you a jolt. Or, it could be your partner coming out of the shower, smelling irresistible. Or, all of a sudden, your best friend is cute.

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As a therapist, I often talk about intimate desire. The reason for this is that desire for intimacy is fundamental to many of us. It’s also because it’s one of the most frequent reasons clients seek my help or the help of other therapists.

A related concept is attraction. What’s so exciting about attraction is that it often seems mysterious, and difficult to define. You know when you experience it, but you don’t always know why you experience it.

In this post, I’ll be focusing on why we feel an instant attraction to some people and not to others.

Research says that it takes less than one second from meeting a person to decide how much we like that person, and whether we’re attracted or not.

It sounds like a very short time — and it is — but the important thing here is realizing that it’s about the initial feeling. How much we like someone and how attracted we are to a person may of course change with time.

For some people, attraction appears after years of friendship. All of a sudden, your colleague or close friend may seem incredibly attractive.

At other times, it may go the other way, and the attraction to your partner, for instance, vanishes into thin air, only to reappear, just as unexpectedly, a couple of months later with a vengeance.

When it comes to that instant attraction that many of us can identify with, we usually ascribe it to things we are aware of, such as the way a person looks. It’s not unusual for us to have a ”type,” and that’s what determines that first jolt of attraction.

But there are, in fact, many other factors involved at the same time, which may actually affect attraction more than just looks.

A person who’s written quite a lot about attraction is researcher Justin Lehmiller. In his book, The Psychology of Human Sexuality, Justin has compiled research on attraction and how it works.

The following factors are the most essential ones for us to feel attracted to someone:

1. Closeness

It’s more likely that we feel attracted to someone who’s closer to us geographically, such as someone who lives in our area or a person at work.

2. Similarity

It’s more likely that we get attracted to someone who’s more similar to us than not. Being similar does not, however, predict the longevity of the relationship or how happy we are together.

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3. Physical excitement

When we meet someone we don’t know and are physically aroused (for example, have a higher heart rate as a result of an adrenaline rush), it increases the chances we’ll feel an instant attraction.

4. Mood

We like people who make us feel good. We like other people more when we ourselves feel good, even if it wasn’t the other person who made us feel good.

5. Shortage

When there are fewer potential partners to choose from, we tend to view the ones present as more attractive. Moreover, when these partners appear more difficult to catch, we become more attracted to them.

6. Looks

People of all gender identities are more attracted to people they find good-looking. But the attraction we feel may depend on whether others perceive that person as attractive, and the context we are in (that is, if there are other attractive/less attractive people in the same room).

A person’s looks tend to be more important at the beginning of a relationship compared to later on in a romantic relationship.

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7. Hormones and neurotransmitters

The attraction we feel is also partly determined by our sense of smell, and what is referred to as pheromones. Higher levels of oxytocin and dopamine may also increase the level of attraction.

So, as you can see, there are many factors affecting whether we feel attracted to someone or not.

Here's how you can learn how attraction works for you with a few simple questions:

1. What do you think are important factors for you to feel attracted to someone?

For example: that we share the same values and/or that they’re good-looking.

2. Has what makes you attracted to someone, changed over time?

If so, in what way?

3. How does it feel when you think about what attracts you to someone?

If you need help identifying a feeling you might want to follow these steps:

  • Where in your body do you experience the feeling?
  • How does the feeling feel?
  • What does it make you want to do?

4. Have you noticed anything else that tends to make you feel attracted, which isn’t listed above in the various factors?

If so, what is it?

Why we feel an instant attraction to some people and not others, is affected by lots of different things: mood, hormones and neurotransmitters, how alike we are, the shortage of other partners available, looks, physical excitement, and the proximity of geographical closeness.

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Leigh Norén is a sex therapist and writer. She's been featured in Glamour, The Tab, Babe, Sexography, The Good Men Project and more.

This article was originally published at The Mind's Journal. Reprinted with permission from the author.